3-Speed Coaster Brake Shootout
So you're thinking of a 3-speed conversion for your cruiser... What options do you have and what hub is best for you?
There are two ways you can go about this - either get a new set of wheels with a 3-speed hub already installed or rebuild your current rear wheel with a new hub. If you aren't happy with your rims as they are - ie if they're just plain alloy then you might as well use this opportunity to get something new. Most bike shops can sell you a wheel set with a 3-speed already installed, I know Ride Away has quite a few in stock. You can expect to pay about $150 to $200 for a new set of rims with a 3-speed.
If you decide you just want to modify your existing wheels then things get a little cheaper. You will usually pay between $50 and $100 for a 3-speed hub depending on which model you choose - the Sturmey Archer AWC is probably the cheapest while the SRC3 and the Shimano Inter-3 will set you back a bit more. Expect to pay about $40 to get your wheel rebuilt, chances are you're going to need new spokes plus there's a fair amount of labour involved in a hub swap. If you can build a wheel yourself then you can save a little bit here but I'd rather just pay the money and let someone else do it.
Sturmey went bankrupt in 2000 and was purchased by Sun Race, a Taiwaneese company with a long history in the bike business. Sun Race moved the entire Sturmey Archer factory, machinery and all to their Taiwan plant and even brought along the supervisors from the old Sturmey plant to help set up and get things running. Sun Race knows quite a bit about the bike market and has renewed the whole Sturmey product line even going so far as to introduce new hubs based on the old Sturmey designs with improvements by the Sun Race design team.
The AWC uses a 3-segment brake shoe design and a cast brake ring pressed in to the hub shell on the left hand side of the hub. There are 3 steel brake shoe segments which are engaged through the gears in a safe design that always engages the same way regardless of which gear the bike is in, eliminating the issues of the TCW while providing a better brake than the S3C. I was quite happy with the brake performance on my 'Old' Sturmey AWC and most riders of the 'New' Sturmey AWC seem to be happy too. If you ever do any service on these hubs it is CRITICAL to use the correct grease - you want a grey moly-lithium grease on the coaster brake, a regular wheel bearing grease on the ball bearings and white lithium grease on the actual gears and pawls themselves! Apart from ensuring correct gear adjustment the only thing to worry about with an AWC is playing it safe with the brake - repeated hard skids can dislodge the cast brake ring from the hub shell destroying the hub. This type of failure usually shows itself starting with slipping in low gear followed by eventual loss of all braking abilities - if you manage to do this to your hub you have no choice but to throw it out and look for something more suited to your riding style such as the Shimano Nexus Inter-3 below.
I have been running an SRC3 on my Manhattan for quite some time now. I have also run an AWC on the same bike so I can give a pretty good comparison between the two. I would say that the improved looks and quieter mechanism of the SRC3 is definitely worth something however I haven't been particularly happy with the brake on this hub. It is VERY difficult to lock up the rear wheel and quick stops don't seem to be much of an option. This MAY be an issue with my particular hub2 as I know others with SRC3's seem to be pretty happy however I have heard from local bike shops that the SRC3 won't stand up to rough service very well. This hub rates highly in the looks department and is definitely a little different from your 'run of the mill' 3-speed but brake issues definitely warrant some careful thought before selecting this hub. However some manufacturers such as Felt use these hubs on their bikes, albeit often with a front drum brake.
One thing to mention about the Sturmey Archer hubs is the large variety of shifter mechanisms available. Due to the long time popularity of the Sturmey design in British and North American bikes there are literally hundreds of shifter options available. I personally am a fan of the old-school trigger shifter although grip shifts are available for those who want them.
The Inter-3 is a noisy hub - under normal pedaling it is easily as loud as your average freewheel hub coasting. When coasting it's REALLY loud so you aren't going to be sneaking up behind anyone. I'm also not a huge fan of the bulky indicator hanging off the right axle - it works ok visually on newer bikes but it will definitely clash with an older-style cruiser. It does allow for easy gear adjustments however.
Brake performance on these hubs is actually quite good. It doesn't take much to lock up the rear wheel on demand and even the most aggressive riders don't seem to be able to break this brake! If you're hard on your bike and don't care too much about visual appeal than this hub is for you - it will withstand much more abuse than any other 3-speed I've tested. That's not to say you can't break it if you really try but you'll stand a better chance of having a working hub at the end of a skid contest than members of the Sturmey family.
One disadvantage to the Shimano design is it uses a different amount of cable travel between gears from the Sturmey design. This means you can only use Shimano shifters with Shimano hubs. Essentially the only readily available shifter is grip-shift, something I am not personally a fan of as I don't like my bike accidently shifting while I'm trying to haul up a hill!
With its billet aluminum housing and minimalist indicator chain the Sturmey SRC3 definitely wins in the looks department. Add near-silent operation and you've got an excellent stealthy 3-speed provided you keep your stopping limitations in mind. If you want old-school looks there are quite a few shifter options available for the Sturmey hubs that won't work on the Shimano versions making the Sturmey hubs the best choice for people who are primarily concerned about how their setup will look and are willing to keep the design's limitations in mind.
If the visual aspect of your hub isn't such a concern and you're a bit harder on your bike then you can't beat the Shimano Nexus Inter-3. Great reliability, very good braking performance and its overall popularity on stock bikes make this hub a safe choice. There are fewer shifter options available but if you're happy with grip-shift then this won't be a problem for you.
Whichever hub you choose, be aware that any 3-speed hub won't be able to take as much abuse as a single-speed coaster. There is a LOT more stuffed in to a tiny space with a 3-speed - brakes work better the larger they are so there is some tradeoff in braking ability when moving to a 3-speed. That said hub manufacturers have done a lot of work to try and deal with these issues. As long as you are aware of the limits of your setup be it single speed, 3 speed or otherwise you can make anything work so get out there and ride!
1. There were a FEW AWC hubs produced in 1988 that are oil-filled instead of greased however I've never actually seen one. 1988 was the first year for the AWC and in 1989 it was converted to a greased hub.
2. After riding more on my SRC3 and doing a few good 'burn in' stops on hills the braking is improved somewhat over its 'out of the box' state but it is still weaker than other hubs I've tried.